February issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Published 14 years ago

The plot is bizarre. But it’s being used as the reason why Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flights were being secretly and routinely searched on arrival in Toronto for several weeks last year.

The story goes something like this. In 2009, Transport Canada, the umbrella government agency responsible for all policies and programmes related to transportation in the country, received information about a possible terrorist threat originating in Pakistan. Raw explosive material would be placed on a PIA aircraft departing from Pakistan and bound for Toronto. On arrival, the material would be assembled into a bomb and placed back onto the aircraft for its return journey. The bomb would then be detonated some time after take-off during the long 14-hour journey. To foil the plan, in August 2009, the Canadian government enacted a top secret plan to search all PIA flights arriving in the nation’s largest city and busiest airport.

This story, however, is unconfirmed. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) broke the news on January 12, 2010. This was less than three weeks after the failed bombing of Northwest Airlines flight 253 over Detroit on December 25, but six long months after the searches commenced. The details of the bomb plot came from an official at Toronto’s international airport who spoke to the CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster, on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job. The logic behind the back-and-forth logistics, said the man (who appeared on camera for an interview but whose face was scrambled and voice was changed) was to obscure the true origin of the material, “thus taking the suspicion away from the other country and putting it on Canada.”

Besides being bizarre, the plot is open to question. Why would terrorists go to the trouble of moving explosives into hugely policed and watched areas like Pakistan’s airports to smuggle explosive materials halfway across the world only to risk being caught retrieving the material, assembling it and putting it back on the plane? Couldn’t the same material be procured in Canada, as clearly the terrorists already had men on the ground there to do the assembly? Does it mean that terrorists with links to Pakistan have people on the ground at Lester B. Pearson International Airport in Toronto to do the technical work?

But it is not just the plot that is mysterious. The whole search operation by the Canadian authorities was equally so. In their report, the CBC claimed that their unnamed sources said that standard airport security protocol was not followed while the PIA planes were being searched. Local police or Canada’s federal police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, were not called in, and the plane was searched while at the gate, instead of being isolated, putting the public at risk. Airport sources made other puzzling claims too: those conducting the searches did not know what they were looking for and cargo coming off PIA planes was not searched. Was the material expected to be in the cabin only? Does this mean that people within PIA are involved? Was there such a major breach in airport security in Pakistan that would allow airport personnel to smuggle explosives onto airport grounds and then onto a flight, either as cargo or in the cabin?

During an interview with OMNI television, Pakistan’s top diplomat in Toronto was quick to defend Pakistan’s airport security record. “The airport security force in Pakistan is one of the finest in the world,” said Consul General Sahebzada Khan. “The recent incident in Detroit was not on a PIA flight from Pakistan,” he said. Neither were the incidents involving the shoe bomber, nor the attacks on 9/11, he added. “I assure you that the security at all Pakistani airports is so stringent that all luggage, cargo and passengers are screened and scrutinised.”

Amazingly, through all the recent reported threats, PIA claims it never knew what was really going on (see a follow-up article to this report here). Never being privy to the substance of the order, the airline could not take any action to safeguard passengers or crew. This may have to do with the secrecy and powers of the security measures. The orders to search PIA flights came straight from the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, John Baird, said the CBC. After the 9/11 attacks, the minister of transport was given some extra tools to help secure the skies. Amendments were made to Canada’s Aeronautics Act under Section 4.72, allowing the minister to create and carry out aviation safety measures and keep them secret from the public, all without consulting anyone “if, in the opinion of the minister, the security measure is immediately required for aviation security, the security of any aircraft or aerodrome or other aviation facility or the safety of the public, passengers or crew members.” This special order, which singled out PIA, reportedly was signed by Minister Baird. The legislation giving these extreme powers to the minister demands secrecy and thus prevents anyone or any organisation from publicly disclosing the details of any special security measure — to do so is illegal.

After many attempts, Newsline eventually made contact with PIA’s Country Manager in Toronto, Syed Rehan Ahmed, via telephone. Even though he said could not speak on the issue (as he admitted he had been recently reprimanded by his superiors in Pakistan for talking to the press, and PIA’s managing director was upset with him) he did try to trivialise the searches. “Searches happen now and then,” said Mr Ahmed, who was getting ready to leave Canada when Newsline spoke to him; a new PIA management team was preparing to take over in Toronto starting in February. “They [the Canadian government] do it for every airline. Any airline can be selected and searched for security purposes.” When pressed about PIA being singled out, Mr Ahmed then claimed he knew little about what happens behind the scenes at the airport. “The station manager knows about these things.”

Though the searches were halted by the end of October, the secret directive seems to still be in place given that the minister has not suspended or repealed it as per instructions laid out in the Aeronautics Act: it has not provided any public notice disclosing the substance of the measure as required by law if the minister deems that the threat no longer exists.

Newsline contacted Transport Canada, but the agency offered no details on any perceived threat emanating from Pakistan and PIA. “Keeping Canadians safe from security threats is an important priority of our government,” says James Kusie, a spokesperson for Transport Canada. “Security measures are by their nature confidential. For both legal and security reasons, we do not speak publicly about security measures. Doing so would also compromise their effectiveness,” Kusie adds. “As a matter of routine, these measures are monitored and where adjustments are required, they are made.”

So, Transport Canada still remains tight-lipped over the whole affair. But given that the searches have ostensibly stopped months ago (reportedly after Pakistan’s national carrier started arguing with Transport Canada over who would foot the bill for the expensive exercise which caused delays to the three non-stop flights a week from Toronto to Pakistan) it is doubtful PIA passengers need to worry.

If Minister Baird was still very worried, he could refuse PIA’s landing privileges in Canada altogether — and he can do that with any foreign airline he suspects of unlawful or dangerous activities — such is the extent of his powers. Section 4.75 of the Act states that in the name of public safety “no operator of an aircraft registered outside Canada shall land the aircraft at an aerodrome in Canada unless the aircraft and all persons and goods on board the aircraft have been subjected to requirements that are acceptable to the minister.”

Somehow, though, given all the alleged irregularities in the search operation (no police involvement, no search instructions) and the abrupt end to it, it is not unreasonable to be sceptical of the whole drama. Plus, so much is unclear. Was this an elaborate scheme to put pressure on the Pakistan government on other issues relating to terrorism? PIA is the only airline offering direct flights from Canada to Pakistan and those flights are usually packed. It is clearly a moneymaking route for PIA and jeopardising it is the last thing the financially troubled national carrier would want to do.

Still, the whole issue should be troubling for Pakistanis. Pakistan’s international reputation continues to get worse. And if there is any truth to the alleged bomb threat, then the threats to Pakistan itself continue to grow, as key national installations and institutions have already been compromised.

Related article:
Sniffing out the ‘Threat’ at PIA

In our original report
Newsline printed that “sniffer dogs were not used” in the searches. According to sources, sniffer dogs were indeed used.